Google VP Gives Developers Advice

Some of Google's best innovations came from thinking big, Marissa Mayer said.

SAN FRANCISCO-Marissa Mayer, vice president of search product and user experience at Google, gave developers some insight into how things are done at Google and offered advice on how to approach building compelling Web applications and services.

In a keynote address May 29, Mayer shared insights and observations she's had since joining the company in 1999 as Google's first female engineer and one of the first 20 people employed by the search giant.

At the Google I/O developer conference here, Mayer's first point for developers to digest was to "think about the ordinary and the everyday. When you focus on this you can solve big problems," she said.

Mayer said the concept for iGoogle, which is a customizable user start page, came out of this kind of thinking. In addition, the Google Gadgets that populate and display content on a user's page represent open possibilities for developers as well as opportunities for advertising, she said.

She also said that "the ordinary and the everyday becomes the extraordinary and the everyday."

Mayer also told the crowd of developers that when it comes to design it may be best to follow an "Occam's Razor" approach, in that the simplest design may be the best.

Look at Google's clean, minimalist homepage, she said. Google co-founder Sergey Brin designed the homepage. Mayer said when she asked him what inspired him to develop such a minimalist site, he said: "We didn't have a Web master and I don't do HTML."

Meanwhile, Mayer said developers must know where they are and where they want to be in a particular space and also to "know your customer better than they know themselves."

To get there, Google has done what Mayer called "Split A/B Testing," where different user sets are given new and different Web experiences, she said.

"This is where design has become more of a science than an art. Mayer said Google used split A/B testing to determine how much white space users preferred on various applications, how many results to display at once, and what color to make ads," she said. "The beauty of split A/B testing is that in places where users can't articulate what they want you can find out" via the testing.

Another thing for developers to keep in mind when developing Web applications is that "urgent can drown out important."

In addition, Mayer said developers should routinely plan out applications that will be relevant two years from now, but they also should "think 10 years out" and build services around those ideas.

Meanwhile, Google each summer holds a brainstorming session about what Google should look like two years out, Mayer said.

She also told the developer audience to "have a healthy disrespect for the impossible" and to "be scrappy and revel in constraints."

Developers also should always remember that "imagination is a muscle." From this comes the Google concept of 20 percent time, "where we give people one day a week to work on anything they want," Mayer said. "That's where beautiful things happen. Google News came out of 20 percent time," as did Orkut and other services.

Despite branching into a host of different areas, Google remains doggedly focused on its core search business. "We're going to see search in a lot of different modes, such as phones, in cars and more media," Mayer said. "And there will be a bigger personalization piece-looking at where users are and they last searched on. Personalization will be really important in the future.

As much as Google loves its developer base, Mayer said the company needs to do a better job of supporting developers in dealing with bugs in Google technologies. "For technical people who want to file bug reports we don't have a great answer right now," she said.